Marjorie Worthington

Literature, Publishing, Photography

Carl Van Vechten, William Seabrook, and Marjorie Worthington

William Seabrook and Marjorie Worthington
Portraits by Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964)


Usually we took them in our stride, offering an apéritif, lunch, or dinner, and sometimes a trip in one of the little boats across the harbor to Les Sablettes. But when Carl Van Vechten and his vivacious wife, Fania, arrived, they expected more than that. At least, Carl did. For all his sophistication there was a streak of naïveté in Carlo that was perhaps part of his charm. 

We took him and Fania to Charley’s, where we enjoyed our dinner, and then Carl announced that he wanted to visit a Toulon brothel. I am quite sure he would never have asked to visit one in New York or any other American city, but because he was in France and because Marseilles had a certain reputation and Toulon, actually, was not far from Marseilles, he expected Toulon to be filled with houses of ill fame, all of them very exciting and special. 

The truth was, Willie and I were the last people to act as cicerones in the area of commercialized vice. When Willie wanted excitement he had his own ways of creating it, and the synthetic stuff likely to be found in brothels would have bored him to death. 

However, since all our friends expected us to show them the sights, we walked with the Van Vechtens to a part of the town that was almost as unfamiliar to us as it was to them. As I remember it, there was a row of houses over near one of the gates in what remained of the wall that had surrounded Toulon in medieval times. Over each house, on the glass transom, was written in elaborate lettering, a name: Adele, Nanette, Mignon, etc. And over the name was a naked light bulb, painted red. 

We went along the row and came back to the first one, Adele’s house, because it was the largest and therefore promised the most elaborate entertainment. We rang a bell and the door was opened for us after a while by a rather drab female whom we took to be a servant. She led us into a large square room, and to a wooden table along a wall. She took our order for drinks, and disappeared. 

We looked around. Anything less like a house of joy would have been hard to find. The floor and walls were bare. In a corner was an upright piano and a bench but no piano player. In fact, a lugubrious silence filled the room, and we waited for our drinks with the hope they would brighten things up, at least for us. They took a long time coming and when they arrived were served by a short squat little man with a handlebar mustache, wearing sloppy trousers and carpet slippers. 

Carlo asked him where everyone was and he shrugged his shoulders. Adele was not working tonight, he said, and her regular customers had the delicacy to stay away. It appeared that Adele’s father had just died, and the house was in mourning. 

However, he added, as we started to leave, there was one girl on duty, “une brave jeune fille,” and he would send her to us immediately. In the meantime, since the “girls” were permitted to drink only champagne, would we not like to order a bottle? Of the very best? It was obvious that he disapproved of our marc, the local eau de vie, which Willie had ordered for all of us in a vain effort to show we were not tourists. The French were always great sticklers for form, and in the circumstances champagne was the proper thing to drink, even the sweet, sickening stuff he opened for us with a pop and a flourish. It didn’t make us feel any gayer. 

Pretty soon a young woman entered the room and came up to our table. She was wearing a plain dark skirt and blouse and she looked vaguely familiar. It was the little slattern who had opened the door for us, only now her dark hair was brushed and she looked cleaner. She sat down with us and accepted a glass of wine. Then she looked at us expectantly. 

Willie spoke to the girl, using the patois of the region, and Carlo listened as if he understood, and I grew very nervous. I looked at Fania and she looked at me and we didn’t need words in any language to understand each other. We made an excuse and asked the girl to show us where the powder room was, just as though we were at “21” or the Colony, and if the girl looked puzzled it was only for a moment. She caught on quickly enough that we wanted to talk to her. 

When we got out of sight, Fania took a handful of francs from her bag and I found fifty of my own to add to them. “Say no to the Messieurs,” I managed to say. She understood, parfaitement, and thanked us. After all, with a death in the family . . . you understand . . . and the funeral tomorrow . . . one didn’t feel exactly like . . . It was understood. And she thanked us. 

Carlo and Willie were as relieved as we were to be out on the street again. The hour was late, and the Van Vechtens were catching a train for Italy early in the morning. We took them back to the Grand Hotel, still good friends in spite of the fact that we, as well as Toulon, had failed to live up to our reputation.

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Literature

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (Excerpt)

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook

By Marjorie Worthington

“Another Toulon Day”

It was about ten o’clock when we reached the hotel. That was pretty early for Toulon, but the big yellow Victorian palace of a place, with ornate chandeliers and Brussels carpeting, seemed very quiet. We almost tiptoed to the door indicated to us, and knocked. A voice asked who was there, and when Willie answered, “Seabrook,” there was a happy laugh and the command, “Entrez.”

It was not a suite, but just one enormous bedroom, with lots of chairs around, a fireplace, and a bar set up on an ormolu cabinet. The princess had expensive tastes and an income much more modest than that of her friends, and she must have been in one of her economy streaks. 

She was wearing a silk pajama suit, the kind that was worn for afternoons and evenings in the South of France at that time. Her bed was fully made, and she was lying on top of the creamy satin spread. At one side of the bed was a table on which was laid a lacquered tray containing all the paraphernalia for smoking opium: a small spirit lamp, a sticky lump of black stuff, and a long, ivory-colored pipe with a small cup-like thing near one end. The little lamp was lighted and she was rolling some of the black gum into a ball, or pill.

“Make yourselves drinks,” she said, waving to the bottles and glasses with her free hand. “Then come and sit near me and tell me what wonderful and scandalous things you have been doing. I am starving for news of you.”

We did as we were told, and Willie talked, telling marvelous tales, some of them true, most of them not. I sat quietly drinking my drink and listening some of the time, and thinking my own thoughts; but mostly I watched the princess, who spent so much time preparing her pipe for what amounted to one deep puff. Being a rather lazy person, I wondered what there was in that puff to make it worth such a long and complicated process. I decided not to find out.

The room became filled with an acrid-sweet smell that mingled with the fumes of the cognac in the glass I held in my hand. Willie had joined the princess on the bed and she was teaching him to fill a pipe. I felt very drowsy. There was a chaise longue in the room, and I settled myself upon it and waited. A musical clock on the mantel chimed the hours of twelve . . . one . . . two . . . three. . . . 

I remember making, or being asked to make, a pot of tea. I found what looked like a solid gold teapot and put it over the alcohol lamp I found near it, and lit the wick. When I remembered about the tea again, the whole beautiful little gold teapot had melted down into a nugget. Evidently I had forgotten to put any water in it. I was very sad about the teapot and told the princess so, but she was off in some exalted region with Willie tagging behind on his own cloud. And it didn’t matter.

The clock went on ringing out the intervals of hours. Through the cracks in the venetian blinds I could see daylight. The murmur of voices had been going on forever: Princess Telle describing her childhood, then her marriage and her happiness, and then her sorrow. I slept through most of it, almost as drugged, by the fumes, as they were by their pipes. And then it was six o’clock, and Willie was standing up and telling me we must go.

We went out very softly; the hotel was not awake. But as we walked down through the city, people began to sweep the sidewalks before the shops and caf.s, and some of them greeted us with a polite “bonjour,” to which we responded. We reached our studio somehow, I leading a remote Willie by the hand most of the way. I didn’t know how many pipes he had smoked, but I knew they were too many for a neophyte. I was worried enough to become heroic and attack the primus stove by myself. I made a large pot of coffee and kept pouring cup after cup until he had drunk enough, I thought, to counteract the opium. Then we slept for a while, and then we woke up and went to our respective typewriters. Another Toulon day had begun.


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Literature, Publishing

THE STRANGE WORLD OF WILLIE SEABROOK

COMING IN FALL 2017:
MARJORIE WORTHINGTON’s Memoir

This is the somber, quietly stunning account of American author Marjorie Worthington’s life and relationship with William Seabrook. 

A bestselling writer on the exotic and the occult, Seabrook was an extraordinary figure from the 1920s to the 1940s who traveled widely and introduced voodoo and the concept of the “zombie” to Americans in his book The Magic Island

In 1966, years after his death from suicide, Worthington, a novelist and Seabrook’s second wife, cast her eye on their years living in France as lost-generation expatriates; their time traveling in the Sahara desert (where Seabrook researched his book The White Monk of Timbuctoo); their friendships with Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, and Michel Leiris; and the gradual erosion of their relationship. 

Worthington was with Seabrook in France and later New York when his life became consumed by alcohol, and he took the drastic step of committing himself to a mental institution for a cure; though he wrote about the institution in his book Asylum, he remained an alcoholic. He was also fixated by sadistic games he played with women, which he and the surrealist Man Ray photographed, and which he later viewed as a way to initiate altered psychological states through pain.

The Strange World of Willie Seabrook is an intimate look at the complicated, torturous relationship of two writers. Seabrook was a sadist, yet to Worthington he was also enthralling; he was an alcoholic, but she believed she could protect him. Even after he had hurt her emotionally, she stayed near him. In brilliantly depicted moments of folie à deux, we watch Worthington join Seabrook in his decline, and witness the shared claustrophobic, psychological breakdown that ensues.